Distilling Livelihoods in Timor-Leste: Fataluku Ecologies of Practice

Andrew McWilliam (The Australian National University)


This paper takes its lead from Jim Fox’s highly regarded monograph entitled, Harvest of the Palm: ecological change in eastern Indonesia (1977). Part colonial history, part striking comparison of livelihood ecologies in the region, Fox’s work drew attention to the remarkable and diverse contribution of sugar palm economies and the adaptive capacity of different ethno-linguistic communities in southeastern
Indonesia. This work and his innovative accompanying film, Water of Words, drew attention to a series of themes and topics around agriculture and resource management that have continued to inform many of the diverse directions of Fox’s subsequent research and those of his students and colleagues in the decades since. These themes include colonial history and its rich archival possibilities for shedding light on the shifting politics of local domains; the impact of colonial policies and contemporary governance on local livelihoods; the significance of the sugar palm as an economy and ecology of practice and, in ritual contexts, its association with ritual and parallel speech and verse. At the heart of the Harvest of the Palm is an argument that centres on the contrasting prospects of low impact and sustainable lontar palm
economies on the islands of Rote and Savu, and the destructive ‘slash and burn’ maize economies in the neighbouring drylands of Sumba and Timor. In the following paper I draw on that compelling contrast by offering a comparative perspective on the role and practice of palm tapping and distilling among Fataluku practitioners in eastern Timor. Their traditions look more like those of Savu and Roti than the swidden systems of West Timor described in Harvest of the Palm, and in so doing they highlight the role of sugar palm as one component in a mixed foraging and farming economy. As elsewhere the distilled liquor they produce remains an essential accompaniment to ceremonial exchange and ritual enactment.

Keywords: ecology, sugar palms, livelihoods, eastern Indonesia